Archive for May, 2008

May 12 2008

Gerson on Science

Last week Michael Gerson published this editorial in the Washington Post – essentially his answer to the notion that there is a “Republican war on science.” He argues that:

There are few things in American politics more irrationally ideological, more fanatically faith-based, than the accusation that Republicans are conducting a “war on science.”

Gerson needs to get out more. I do not want to address some of the purely political points that he is trying to make (this is simply not a political blog), but the piece does present some opportunities to discuss logical fallacies. (As an aside, for convenience I will use “Republican” or “conservative” to refer to the positions that Gerson is defending but I acknowledge that not all Republicans or conservatives hold these positions.) For example, he writes:

Any practical concern about the content of government sex-education curricula is labeled “anti-science.” Any ethical question about the destruction of human embryos to harvest their cells is dismissed as “theological” and thus illegitimate.

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May 09 2008

Brainwave Entrainment – A Response from Transparent Corp.

Earlier this week I wrote about the marketing of devices for brainwave entrainment for therapeutic use, concluding that these devices and the claims made for them are pseudoscientific. In response to my blog post I received the following e-mail:

Dear Dr. Novella,

I am the director of research at Transparent Corporation, which is the developer of Neuro-Programmer, and was disappointed to read your blog entitled “Brainwave Entrainment and Pseudoscience”.

I fully acknowledge that peer reviewed research on Brainwave entrainment is hard to locate, and it is one of the biggest hindrances to the field. The greatest barrier to finding this research is the lack of consistency in terminology used to describe brainwave entrainment. In fact, the term “brainwave entrainment” appears to have been invented by those in the industry, rather than those who have published on the subject. In the last year, I wrote an article entitled “A comprehensive review of the psychological effects of brainwave entrainment” which has been accepted in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and I’ve been told will be published this summer. I’ve attached a copy of the article I submitted, but in deference to the journal, I would like to ask you to not distribute this article. This is the first review article that will show such a comprehensive review of peer reviewed research on the effects of brainwave entrainment on psychological outcomes. I found 21 studies that met our basic criteria by using a long list of search terms. Many of these terms, such as photic stimulation or auditory stimulation are general terms that can include brainwave entrainment, so I had to search through thousands of studies that were not relevant to my subject of interest. You can see the procedure I used in my methods and figure 1. You will note that I did not use Pubmed, as I was told by the librarian at Tufts University that Ovid searches are more extensive than Pubmed, and include those from Pubmed. A number of the articles are from the Journal of Neurotherapy which can be found in the Psychinfo database.

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May 08 2008

Charges Dropped in Chelation-Autism Death

Dr. Roy Kerry, who is an ENT surgeon (ear, nose, and throat specialist) decided that he would extend his practice to treating children with autism by giving them chelation therapy for presumed heavy metal poisoning. In other words, he decided to completely abandon the scientific and ethical standards that should guide the practice of medicine. Back in the day, states actually took it upon themselves to enforce reasonable standards, but the world today is swept up in a collective delusion – often referred to as complimentary and alternative medicine (CAM) or “integrative” medicine – the essence of which is the wholesale abandonment of the standard of care in favor of wishful thinking and magic.

As economist Paul Krugman observed, in a different context (and I am paraphrasing), “When the public believes in magic, it’s springtime for charlatans and con-artists.”

In the case of Kerry, his medical shenanigans lead directly to the death of 5-year-old Abubakar Tariq Nadama in 2005. The story is tragic: Abubakar had autism. His parents, reasonably and lovingly wanting to do everything they can for their child, apparently became caught in the web of misinformation claiming that autism is associated with mercury poisoning. The scientific evidence does not support this contention, nor is there scientific evidence that treating autistic children with chelation to remove mercury is of any benefit. That such misinformation is out there is an unavoidable consequence of free and readily available information in an open society. But it is also a symptom of a scientifically illiterate society grappling with scientific medical issues, and the current atmosphere of distrust of the medical establishment combined with the allure of anything “alternative.”

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May 07 2008

Florida Academic Freedom Law Killed

Published by under Creationism/ID

I wrote previously that the Florida state senate passed a version of an “evolution academic freedom” bill. This bill represents the latest strategy of the anti-evolution movement – the claim that the academic freedom of those who have legitimate scientific doubts about evolution are being oppressed. Such laws are unnecessary, and they single out evolution simply because the true purpose of such laws is to create a back door through which creationism and other pseudoscientific evolution-denial can be introduced into the classroom.

Well now I am happy to report that the Florida bill was defeated in the House. For now, it is dead. But it seems that the death of this bill was due at least partly to stubborn differences in proposed language between the senate version and the house version. So it may have been bureaucratic inefficiency, not common sense, that killed this bill.

Also, this bill is only the tip of the iceberg. There are forms of this bill in several other states – Louisiana, Missouri, Alabama, and Michigan – and the Discovery Institute is pushing this hard as their latest attempt to undermine the teaching of evolution. It looks like this is going to be the battle ground for the next few years.

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May 06 2008

Culture Matters

Last week we interviewed Kirsten Sanford for the Skeptics’ Guide podcast. Kirsten is a PhD neurophysiologist who is forging a career as a media scientist. She currently hosts the This Week in Science podcast and is working on a number of other projects.

We discussed the role that culture, particularly television and other mainstream media, plays in forming the stereotypical image of the geek scientist. Kirsten lamented that female scientists on TV are typically unattractive, both physically and in their personality, and that part of her goal as a media scientist is to show that women can be “girly” and pretty while still being interested in science.

The segment prompted this e-mail from a listener:

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May 05 2008

Brainwave Entrainment and Marketing Pseudoscience

Beware simple answers to complex problems, or easy methods for accomplishing difficult goals. If you combine this maxim with the advice to be skeptical of any claims that are being made in order to sell you something – then ironically you have a simple method (perhaps I should call it an “elegant” method) for protecting yourself from most scams and cons. Actually the application of this combination of maxims can be complex, but what it does do is trigger doubt and skeptical analysis. (And to be clear I am not saying that all simple solutions must be wrong – you should just beware them, meaning your skeptical senses should be tingling.)

The reason this rule of thumb is so useful is because there is a huge market for simple answers. A genuine elegant solution (one that accomplishes more with less) is highly valuable in the marketplace. We are used to technology delivering new easy solutions to previously difficult tasks. While most improvements are incremental, there are occasional breakthroughs that transform our lives.

Therefore we are very receptive to new technology products that promise to improve our lives, or solve previously difficult problems, because of some new scientific or technological advance. This has created, in a sense, a marketplace of consumers that expect to be dazzled with technobabble they don’t understand, backed by assurances of legitimacy by the citing of research and association with professionals or professional institutions, and offering significant benefits. We are all, in a sense, waiting for that next product to improve our lives, and many of us like to feel we are on the cutting edge – getting an advantage over others by being savvy early adopters.

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May 02 2008

Bullshit

I am not referring to the excellent Showtime series by Penn & Teller – but rather to the very concept of BS. It turns out it is actually a useful concept for science and skepticism. Andy Lewis, who writes the Quackometer blog, recently wrote about the concept of BS as it applies to “alternative medicine”, specifically homeopathy. I liked it and thought the concept can be more generally applicable.

As skeptics we are often confronted with the false dichotomy question of whether or not a certain purveyor of nonsense or woo is self-deluded or a con-artist. My usual response is that for most people they are somewhere along that spectrum, and probably incorporate aspects of both. Since we can’t read minds, we can only guess or infer what a person’s true intentions are. I usually abstain from such speculation – except in cases where the behavior of the pseudoscientist requires conscious fraud. Psychic surgery is a good example. There is no self-deception involved in palming chicken innards and then pretending to psychically remove them from a person who desperately sought your help for their cancer.

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May 01 2008

Brain Gym – This Is Your Brain On Pseudoscience

I was recently asked to evaluate the claims of the Brain Gym – a system of physical movements and exercises that are purported to improve mental function. The method, referred to as “educational kinesiology,” (Edu-K) is the brainchild of Paul and Gail Dennison, who first proposed it in the 1970′s. Brain Gym is widely used in the UK, Canada, and other countries – incorporated into the public school systems. Unfortunately, Edu-K is little more than pseudoscientific wishful thinking and an example of researchers who refused to abandon their (lucrative) claims simply because they are wrong.

The official Brain Gym website claims that:

Brain Gym includes 26 easy and enjoyable targeted activities that integrate body and mind to bring about rapid and often dramatic improvements in: concentration, memory, reading, writing, organizing, listening, physical coordination, and more.

and

We are a worldwide network dedicated to enhancing living and learning through the science of movement. For more than 30 years and in over 80 countries, we have been helping children, adults, and seniors to:

    • Learn ANYTHING faster and more easily
    • Perform better at sports
    • Be more focused and organized
    • Start and finish projects with ease
    • Overcome learning challenges
    • Reach new levels of excellence

The basic premise of Edu-K is that physical movements can improve the hardwiring and processing of the brain – beyond mere “muscle memory” and the learning of physical tasks. The kernel of truth to this (keeping in mind that the claims for Edu-K go way beyond this) is that physical activity is stimulating and does have generic biological benefits that do correlate with an improved ability to focus and concentrate. People who are physically active tend to be more mentally active as well. But this is not the premise of Edu-K.

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